This is a book about brothers. It is about fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, nephews and uncles, even doctoral advisor (Doktorvater) and student (Doktorand). Per Leo sometimes inhabits this patrimony with an ironic nod. Things go best with his father when football is involved. He less ironically describes the ‘refreshing masculine severity’ (erfrischend männliche Strenge) modelled by his academic mentor Ulrich Herbert, who motivated his students ‘finally to want to know new things instead of just yammering on about the same old feelings’ (endlich neue Dinge wissen statt nur über die immer gleichen Gefühle quatschen zu wollen; p. 44). And he often finds frankly dumbfounding the nationalist-masculinist world of his forebears: his great-grandfather Heinrich and two of Heinrich’s sons—Friedrich, Per’s grandfather, and Martin, his great-uncle. He blinks his eyes in disbelief at the old German script—perhaps he’s just decoding it wrong—but did Heinrich really inscribe a book to his mother-in-law with a poem intoning the father’s duty to draw his son away from grandmotherly warmth in order to initiate him into ‘the murder of men’ (Männermord, p. 98–99)? The son in question—for the context makes clear that behind the verse’s generic ‘son’ was a very real boy—was Martin, Heinrich’s own son, who basked too much in grandmotherly warmth for Heinrich’s comfort. Heinrich had less cause for concern about Martin’s younger brother Friedrich, who took to the outdoors and enjoyed war games. A casualty of the First World War, Heinrich did not live to see what became of the boys. Friedrich dropped out of Gymnasium and became a department head (Abteilungsleiter) in the SS Race and Settlement Main Office (Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt). Martin, an enthusiastic amateur astrologer and meticulous chronicler of his world, earned a doctorate and was sterilized by the Nazis due to Bekhterev’s disease. As a child, Per found his grandfather uninteresting; he met Martin, who lived in the GDR, only once. Martin himself appears to have barely noticed Friedrich. In his lengthy unpublished memoir, he scarcely mentioned his younger brother, even in childhood scenes. Yet Martin and Friedrich became inseparable in Per’s effort to make sense of his family history. They were ‘two halves of a torn picture’ (Zwei Hälften eines zerrissenen Bildes, p. 47), and each made it possible to understand the other’s story. Simultaneously a family history, a memoir and, according to the subtitle, a ‘Roman’, Flut und Boden endeavours to reassemble the torn pieces of the picture. In several essay-like chapters, Friedrich and Martin illuminate the Janus-faced nature of German history, with the shared brain troubling the more conspicuous feature of faces gazing in opposite directions. Protestantism’s encouragement to question, debate and wonder; Protestantism’s capacity for bigotry and conformity. The loveliness of German Christmas; German Christmas Nazified. Even the brothers’ shared interest in graphology provides Leo with rich fodder: Germans’ faith in handwriting analysis reveals both their creative humanism and a disturbing confidence in the possibility of easily discerning a person’s character. (Leo’s discovery of Ludwig Klage’s popular book on graphology among Friedrich’s belongings led him to write a dissertation on characterology and antisemitism which, in a very different voice, approached related questions about the contortions of the German bourgeois tradition: Der Wille zum Wesen: Weltanschuungskultur, charakterologisches Denken und Judenfeindschaft in Deutschland 1890–1940, Berlin, 2013.) Although the book begins with the author’s depressive episode, this is no ordinary memoir of a tortured descendant uncovering his forebears’ Nazi history. Leo bitingly characterizes the perverse social capital that accompanies a legacy such as his: Friedrich’s history makes Per interesting to an otherwise-bored therapist and to a cute date, both unnamed. Leo makes quick work of Friedrich’s Nazi era history. Friedrich’s criminal past doesn’t require years of searching to uncover or a full book to relay. It requires only one thick binder’s worth of photocopied archival documents and a single chapter—indeed, the shortest chapter in the book. That chapter’s title, ‘No Secret’ (Kein Geheimnis), is yet another lance at a cliché: that of dark family secrets. Friedrich did not make a secret of his past. Long after the war, he subjected his children to slide shows of Nazi era photos to teach them to spot the difference between members of the racial elite and outsiders. He bored his children and grandchildren with the tale of his escape from American prison camp. When, in 1949, Friedrich’s seven-year-old son (Per’s father) asked who had actually won the war that was the subject of so many animated family discussions, Friedrich had to admit: ‘Unfortunately not us’ (Leider nicht wir, p. 128). Reading his grandfather’s personal writings doesn’t evoke distress in Leo so much as disgust at the sheer idiocy of Friedrich’s thought and the fact that such idiocy could emerge triumphant long enough to do such dreadful damage. Much of the book’s power lies in its literary qualities—not simply ‘good writing’ but rather literary finesse as a solution to the problems raised by the intersection of history and memoir. Having rejected the role of the troubled descendant searching for a truth buried beneath family secrets, Leo faces the task of portraying his family history through his own eyes—without, however, making himself the centre of the story. Consider, then, the following passage, which displays Leo’s disgust at the workings of the Nazi state better than any first-person declaration ever could: According to the law, death awaited East European forced labourers who had sex with German women. In practice things were somewhat more flexible. Why prematurely shoot people when Volk and Vaterland might still get something from them? Attractive children for example. So: first check whether the lecher might pass as German. Confident presentation, blue eyes? Yes, Bolek, that really was a lucky fuck then—welcome, Volksgenosse! Shifty glance, high cheekbones? Ah well, Ivan, a little more self-control and in sixty years you might have collected 1000 Euros from the foundation ‘Memory, Responsibility, Future’. Dem Gesetz nach stand für osteuropäische Zwangsarbeiter auf Sex mit deutschen Frauen der Tod. In der Praxis war man da etwas beweglicher. Warum Leute voreilig erschießen, von denen Volk und Vaterland noch was haben könnten? Hübsche Kinder zum Beispiel. Also erstmal prüfen, ob der Lüstling nicht als Deutscher durchgehen könnte. Sicheres Auftreten, blaue Augen? Ja, Bolek, das war denn wohl ein echter Glücksfick—willkommen, Volksgenosse! Verschlagener Blick, hohe Wangenknochen? Tja, Iwan, etwas mehr Selbstkontrolle und in sechzig Jahren hättest du von der Stiftung ‘Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft’ vielleicht 1000 Euros bekommen. (p. 86) The passage is one of the few places that explicitly challenges the reader to consider the implications of the word Roman in the subtitle. Usually translated as ‘novel’, Roman is less inevitably tied to fiction than is its English equivalent: by some definitions it connotes simply a lengthy narrative of literary quality with the fate of persons as its central theme. Given our knowledge of the author’s personal history and the complementarity of Flut und Boden to his dissertation, we read the book as non-fiction without stopping to ask the question: within Leo’s commitment to a faithful exploration of his family history and German history, has he taken literary licence to create scenes or composite characters? The author does not explicitly address this question. Yet the passage above is clearly fiction, and in a book presenting itself as ‘history’ it would trouble us. Historians frown upon invented dialogue, which claims to represent the essence of ‘what really happened’, albeit through other words (since the original words are unknowable). Words, however, inevitably create their own meaning. Here, though, the invented dialogue makes no such claim to represent ‘what really happened’: it presents the author’s voice and his voice only. Yet it allows him, with a striking economy of words, not only to reveal his own cynicism but also to deliver a history lesson spanning over sixty years, from the inconsistent application of Nazi racial policy to the limits of restitution. Equally sparse, equally willing to deviate from literal facticity and thus equally effective is the conclusion to the chapter on Friedrich’s Nazi era history. In subsequent chapters, we will learn more about Friedrich’s postwar life, but here one five-word sentence fragment tells us all we really need to know about Friedrich’s uselessness—to his state, to his family and to himself—after the defeat of the Nazi state. And then: Cut. Block 8, Civilian Internment Camp No. 6. Flight. Heath. Western orientation. 35 years of dying in Vegesack. Und dann: Schnitt. Block 8, Civilian Internment Camp No. 6. Flucht. Heide. Westbindung. 35 Jahre Sterben in Vegesack. (p. 89) Much of the publicity surrounding Flut und Boden has focused on the contrast between Friedrich and Martin, but by the last two chapters Leo has largely left them behind. Leo rejects his peers’ fascination with his presumed burdens, but he does not deny the potential for lasting injury from such a family history. Rather, in his penultimate chapter he presents a more convincing candidate for tortured descendant than himself: his uncle, here named simply M41 (male, born in 1941—the technocratic designations of anonymized relatives subtly tie the deeply personal story to the dehumanized and bureaucratic aspects of this history, even as it—not coincidentally—makes it occasionally difficult to keep the characters straight). With obvious affection, Leo paints a portrait of a warm, messy and emotionally vulnerable man who bore the lasting damage of having been Friedrich’s eldest son—from enduring physical abuse as a child to protecting his widowed mother from the consequences of Friedrich’s arrogant mismanagement of the family estate. Family secrets were not the author’s burden, but they certainly were M41’s: Friedrich, who had ensured that his children understood the laws of racial purity, never learned that M41 had a son with a Slovakian woman. And we learn that M41, heartbreakingly, believed himself to be an unwitting member of the SS, convinced that he had been signed up upon birth. When Leo concludes his chapter with the words ‘R.I.P. Schutzstaffel Boy’, we really do wish peace to this tortured soul. Where are the women? The inquiry leads us not just to a search for the equivalent book about mothers, grandmothers and aunts, but also to clues about methodology and genre. Initially women appear to be the bearers of a demeaned culture of memory. Making ‘gooey melodrama’ (klebriges Melodram, p. 44) out of the Holocaust appears to be a feminine tendency: both the therapist and the date who want to ascribe to Leo the role of tortured descendant are women. The manly objectivity of the university lecture hall appears as the necessary corrective, rescuing Leo from his depression. A scholar might be asked to reconsider such a characterization in the light of feminist analyses of Holocaust memory, but in such passages Leo presents himself as a memoirist, and memoir forbids the revising of one’s history—including one’s earlier attitudes—whether in the light of subsequent knowledge or in anticipation of critical reviewers. Instead, it places on the page an authorial ‘I’ and a protagonist ‘I’, two characters who are intimately related but separated in time and with asymmetric knowledge of each other. Author Leo is cynical about women’s fascination with Protagonist Leo’s family history, but he also coolly observes Protagonist Leo’s manipulation of that fascination. And over the course of the book, we observe a shift in methodology: from the clipped discussion of the contents of Friedrich’s archival file to the kitchen-table oral histories with M41. The first establishes an orderly chronology and some measure of distance between historian and subject, despite Leo’s revulsion at his grandfather’s career. The second careens through decades of erratic memory and describes a collaborative process, with Leo and M41 equal partners both in reconstituting M41’s history and in Leo’s own maturation. The effect is to travel from a Rankean instinct to turn to the archives to an embrace of the more subjective methods that emerged from feminist and postcolonial critiques of the Rankean tradition. A discomfort with the father–son bond murmurs beneath the surface of this history. Per shares awkward car rides with his father; Martin disappointed his father Heinrich by clinging to his grandmother; Friedrich’s return from prisoner-of-war camp disrupted the warm world that his wife, Trina, had created for M41 and his siblings (without however eliminating the poverty). Indeed, Trina emerges as another tragic figure. A pious provincial who spoke only Low German upon her marriage, she was ill-placed in her husband’s status-conscious family. (Friedrich’s forebears were quite literally a marriage of the educated and the merchant middle classes, Bildungs- und Besitzbürgertum: Heinrich, descendant of a long line of Lutheran pastors and educators, had married the heiress to a Bremen ship-manufacturing fortune.) When Friedrich’s political and professional fortunes reversed with the defeat of Nazism, Trina was left with six children, an egotistical but unproductive husband and an extended family that looked down upon her. Yet in the end, she survived the other Leos of her generation. The author’s vivid sense of his elderly, worn-out grandmother on the family’s now-dilapidated estate, communicated in the book’s earliest scenes, succeeds where his father’s enthusiasm about their supposedly storied ancestors hadn’t: it made him care about his family history. By the time the book ends, the estate is sold, Trina is dead—and Per is gazing at a cell-phone photo of a drawing by three-year-old Helene, our first and only glimpse of a Leo of the next generation. The coincidence of Leo’s having had a daughter rather than a son leaves us with a narrative arc anchored on one end by an elderly woman who attracts Leo to history precisely by having so little investment in it and on the other end by a little girl who engages with history without trauma, disgust or cynicism, but rather with simple delight. Apparently skipping over the disastrous twentieth century to reach back to earlier chapters of her family legacy, Helene has drawn two steamships. ‘No smoke, no water, no sky, no sun, no people. Just two colourful steamships on white paper. As if they were flying through a cloud’ (Kein Rauch, kein Wasser, kein Himmel, keine Sonne, keine Menschen. Nur zwei bunte Dampfer auf weißem Papier. Als flögen sie durch eine Wolke, p. 345). It’s a lovely image of simultaneously affirming and releasing the bonds of history. © The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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